Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 (5-1 aggregate)
It doesn’t rain, it pours.
What was true in the usually dry city of Barcelona last night is also true of Arsenal since they were beaten by the Catalan side in London three weeks ago in the Champions League last 16 first leg. While Barca had won all four games since and extended their winning run to 37 games, Arsenal had lost three of their last five matches, been eliminated from the FA Cup and slipped 11 points behind Leicester at the top of the Premier League.
In Camp Nou, 37 became 38 as Barcelona defeated the Gunners 3-1 and 5-1 on aggregate. Many of the 5,000 travelling Arsenal supporters expected it. They had been evident on the streets of Barcelona in the days before the game and they filled the city’s metro system, telling locals that Arsene Wenger was not the man to take them forward.
One fan even tried to broker a deal with an amused Catalan.
“Look, let us win 1-0 and then you still go through,” said the fan, who joined his comrades on the uncovered upper tier to get soaked.
Barcelona last week announced plans to remodel their famous, but ageing, stadium. It will be fully covered and seat 105,000 by 2019, but that was little consolation to the visiting fans watching their season fall apart. At least Arsenal had a go.
Barca started well and as they moved through their gears, Neymar hit a long diagonal pass to Lionel Messi after 17 minutes. The Argentine controlled it with one touch and shot before David Ospina saved. The Camp Nou crowd always comes alive with independence chants after 17 minutes and they had more reason to make noise when sloppy Arsenal defending saw them lose possession.
Top scorer Luis Suarez hit a side foot pass forward through the Arsenal defence, which Neymar controlled and turned the ball past Ospina for his 26th goal of the season.
Arsenal were missing some of their best players including Jack Wilshere, Petr Cech, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey and it initially showed. They were poor and susceptible not only to through balls in open play, but from long balls over the top of defenders. Ospina’s alertness kept the score down on the slippery surface and yet while Barca were unrelenting, Arsenal did have several chances.
Mesut Ozil had blazed a shot wide from outside the area after nine minutes after Sergio Busquets, a man who does not lose possession, lost possession.
The under fire Wenger, who had justified his longevity and achievements at Arsenal in the pre-match press conference, appealed for a penalty after 35 minutes when Alex Iwobi appeared to be tripped by Javier Mascherano. Replays showed that the 19-year-old Nigerian probably tripped himself.
Iwobi blazed another shot over two minutes later while Alexis Sanchez headed just wide a minute after. Arsenal’s chances were not limited to the first half and they equalised six minutes after the break with Mohamed Elneny’s first goal for the club
The Egyptian’s finish was superb as he bent a pass from Sanchez around Marc-Andre ter Stegen after 51 minutes.
Arsenal had gone out at the last 16 stage in each of the last five seasons and were clear favourites to be eliminated again after the first leg defeat, but they were much improved in front of the 76,092 crowd as the match went on.
Ospina kept them in the game, while Danny Welbeck could have been cuter when he had only Mascherano, who did not have the suspended Gerard Pique alongside him, to beat on the hour. He took a touch too many and another chance was lost.
Barca were always dangerous but Arsenal defended well in the second period and worked up threatening forward positions as they pressured their opponents. Luis Enrique, who enjoys a winning ratio of 81 per cent as Barca boss, stood concerned on the sidelines, lacking the easy assuredness he had showed in the first half.
He relaxed after 63 minutes when Suarez, who’d had a quiet night, volleyed a Dani Alves cross with the bottom of his shin for his 43rd goal of the season.
Welbeck hit the top of the bar, Sanchez drew another save from Ter Stegen with a free-kick after 79 minutes and Arsenal’s sodden fans responded with a chant of ‘Oh, Arsenal we love you’. They were still singing when Lionel Messi chipped Barca’s third three minutes from time.
The night’s scoreline was harsh on Arsenal, but the 5-1 aggregate score underlined the gulf in class. Messi’s goal meant one each for Barca’s big three strikers on the night as they move towards retaining their treble.
Arsenal will likely finish the season trophyless.
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